seven weeks of home

Coming home was the highlight of my year! It was awesome, especially when I only get to do it ONCE a year. It’s a necessary step back so I can see the big picture. Reverse culture shock unfortunately played a big role. When I look back, I can laugh at how ridiculous I was being.

Here are a few snapshots of my time to help you understand how I experienced reverse culture shock.

Where is safest?

Obviously, the closet

The first few days I felt like my sister’s cat. I was getting the tour of my sister’s new house. We had gone through the first floor including the living room, the office, the dining room, the kitchen, and the laundry room. And there was still more house to see! This is the biggest place she’s lived in since she moved out. We finally get upstairs to the smallest of the 3 bedrooms and we peer into the closet. “That’s where he always hides. He’s very skittish after the move. I think the abundance of space is overwhelming for him.” Xeno had only lived in small apartments up until now. Here he was curled up in the corner of a shelf of a tiny closet. Xeno, I understand where you’re coming from. I really do.

Strange things happen in your mind when you return home after a year in a different culture and environment. I moved in with my sister and brother-in-law. My husband was still in South Africa. The first day they went to work I planned on riding my bike to visit a friend, but my tires were completely flat.

That single incident sent me into an isolated, helpless panic. All of a sudden I felt clueless as to how to get around or how to solve this flat tire problem. I felt trapped in a big house in an unfamiliar neighborhood with no way to get around. I could walk, but that overwhelmed me even more because stepping outside made my teeth chatter. It was only 60 degrees F, but I had lost my tolerance for anything less than 80 degrees F. I didn’t know how to work the TV, or their coffee maker. Is it possible to be 26 and feel like a little girl? I wanted to curl up on my bed and just give up. Just like Xeno.

Too much space and too many unfamiliar things!

If the above story sounds pathetic, I couldn’t agree more. When I realized that my sister’s house was smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood I knew quite well, around the corner from the cafe where I met Ruben, down the street from a bike shop, and nearby my old church, I realized just how myopic my brain had become in my state of panicked isolation.

Reverse culture shock did really weird things to me. The abundance of space was overwhelming for me. I felt isolated and confused about how life worked. Although, I’d like to note that this is only when alone! When my sister and bro-in-law were home, I felt perfectly content and happy.Provocative Joy Reverse Culture Shock

I’m new here, but no one can tell

My first few days back I remember feeling like I didn’t know how the world worked. I wasn’t sure what was normal or abnormal but I had a feeling I fell on the abnormal side of things.

I was waiting at the train station for several hours and bought some soup and coffee at a cafe in the terminal. Of course, in true Mercy Ships fashion, I brought my own covered mug to use. That was fine with the clerk except that the cup is 12 oz and they only charged for 16 oz or 20 oz of coffee. When the clerk told me he would only charge me for a refill instead of more coffee than could fit in my cup, I was thrilled! How nice of him! “Thanks, you’re the best,” I told him. “No I’m not ma’am. I’m just doing my job. That’s just customer service.”

Whoa, well excuuuse me! I was definitely not on my beloved hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, anymore. People get so grumpy in the real world.

As time passed, reverse culture shock faded and I felt like I was in my zone again. That was refreshing because I’ve wondered if the things I’ve learned about myself on board the Africa Mercy will carry through to life and the daily grind back home. While there were times that I felt myself slipping back into old patterns of thought (like seeing dozens of billboards for cosmetic surgery a day and feeling that subtly building pressure to have the ‘perfect’ female form), overall I knew something in me was different. I had changed and I am confident I will never go “back to normal”.

The past two years of service with Mercy Ships coupled with this most recent time at home helped me realize 2 things.

Little lessons

First, I am very small on this planet. My circle of influence is relatively small and that limits me. It’s hard to feel too important when you are in the middle of a strange country with a strange language and people brush past you taking care of their daily lives. This helps me stay humble, but it also gives me freedom to be proud of my individuality and not take life too seriously.

Second, I strongly feel my connection to the billions of humans in the world. We may have small circles, but there is no one else on Earth quite like me. Therefore, my actions have an impact much farther than I’ll ever see or know because no one can fill the role on planet Earth that I fill. I am small, but powerful in this global community.

I’ve completed my first week back on the Africa Mercy and my third field service will start soon. My time home gave me the step back I needed to approach this year differently than the previous two. I’m excited to start as Ward Nurse Educator with my friend and colleague Liz. I’m itching to get creative with my Bullet Journal and tell you all about it. This ship is my home for now so I must dig deeper than I did in the past. I’m excited about journeying with Ruben and learning how to love him well, the way he deserves.Reverse culture shock: My Experience


15 comments on “Reverse Culture Shock: My Experience”

  1. Such great reflections. I also experienced reverse culture shock when I came back to the US, although not quite so dramatically! I remember once needing a $5 and looking in my coin purse for a 5zl coin. Every little thing that’s different suddenly feels like such a big deal, and it took me a long time to adjust back.

    • Lola, on the outside I’m sure I looked like I was coping well with it all, but on the inside I felt very dramatic! You’re right about everything feeling like a big deal.

  2. Reverse culture shock is so common amongst us, I’m pretty sure you seemed normal to everyone else, but your mind plays these tricks on you. I remember when I first came home from Milan I felt like an outsider. I even remember going to the bank and speaking italian and hardly understanding her when she spoke back to me in English. haha.

  3. Dear, I am like you! I can totally understand the situation and often I myself suffer from this. It feels weird really weird, atleast you have the guts to admit this queer thing that happens with you! I am even lacking in that!

  4. I remember when I went through a major life change and I needed a new toothbrush. I found myself almost in tears at the drugstore because I couldn’t stand the thought of one more thing that would be different in my life. Change can be difficult.

  5. It’s always hard coming home and experiencing normal life, especially when you are used to something so different. I find I don’t have much in common with my friends as they have such a different life and aren’t interested in knowing what I have been doing as it’s too foreign a concept to them, but it’s always great to recharge the batteries, have a catch up and get excited about getting back on the road again 🙂

  6. I know the feeling!!! I live in the US now, but every time I go home to Japan it’s always a bit different for me. But the very first time I left, I didn’t go home for over 3 years. That was so strange to go home and visit after being gone for so long.

  7. Inyeresting post. I just got back from a 7 week trip around Africa. The first place I stopped was at a small kiosk where I simply asked “Just water please.” The girl looked at me funny and said “sorry?” So again I said “just water, you know? Water?” She gave me the water and my boyfriend said “why were you speaking so directly? You were so rude!” I realised 7 weeks of trying to make myself understood in basic English and broken Swahili had left me with broken English! Slowly getting back in to the swing of things. I can only imagine what it would be like after a year!!

  8. I completely get where you’re coming from. I went back to the US for a bit this year after living in the UK for a year…it’s weird to be “home” but feel like you’re just a visitor; to go to all the places you used to frequent, without people knowing that you’ve ever been there before, etc. It takes awhile to get used to!

  9. I’m constantly surprised about how many people don’t know this is a thing! Everyone just expects you to return to normal when you come home, but it can be really difficult. I had awful reverse culture shock after a three month trip across Asia last summer; it took me two weeks to start feeling okay again. Your words really resonated with me. Wonderfully written.

  10. I lived abroad at 2-3 years at a time and each time I go back home (to the USA) I experience reverse culture shock. “I’m new here but no one knows” really stuck out to me — returning home always makes me feel alienated and I think it becomes harder and harder to pretend normalcy as you reacclimate to the culture… Great read.

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